Heir Story

Who could ever replace Sydney Goldstein? Interviewing the interview queen of City Arts & Lectures.

Elegant in olive silk trousers and a khaki sweater, her nails long and painted French white, Goldstein explains that if she didn't run City Arts & Lectures, she'd want to be a general contractor. She likes putting teams of people together, she says: It provides "control and civility and purpose on an ordinary scale." The series was originally run out of her house.

Oh sure, Goldstein's tried other pursuits. In the mid-'90s, she developed Sophie McCall, a golden ale with added calcium, but was stopped in her tracks by litigation from Anheuser-Busch over her tag line, "The Queen of Beers." As the wall of pictures (and some book jackets) proves, she's a fine photographer. She's penned a few published articles, including one on the late film critic Pauline Kael, a beloved friend. When it comes to writing, though, she insists modestly, "I can write a good letter." ("Alice Trillin said that was the secret to my success.")

In truth, though, planning public events has been her job for most of her adult life. And though Goldstein is clearly proud of her program, one wonders whether she feels trapped by its success, by the consistency of its tradition. She envies series that vie for a younger audience -- "I feel like part of the Old Guard" -- but she knows that's not her style.

She does think about handing City Arts off, but has no clear successor. At one time, she had high hopes for a former assistant -- Mitch Goldman, now a regular interviewer -- but, she says, he didn't love the detailed planning required to make City Arts come off. As she explains, "You have to be a little nuts to do this."

One of the best City Arts events I ever went to was Goldman in conversation with New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, and it's one of Gladwell's subjects who most reminds me of Sydney Goldstein. In "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg," published in the magazine in January 1999, Gladwell described a Chicago grandmother who seemed to be closely linked to a surprising number and variety of people. Gladwell wondered whether "the people who know everyone, in some oblique way, may actually run the world." Goldstein's connections are legendary, and she's a powerful behind-the-scenes force in San Francisco's cultural life, drawing luminaries to this place who'd never think to come here otherwise. I suspect that someday, perhaps not too long from now, she'll pick up the phone and try to find herself an heir. Whether she'll be able to find one with even a rough approximation of her subtle but widespread influence is an open question.

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